By Anne E. Kornblut
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 16, 2009
President-elect Barack Obama, who has sweeping national and international goals, also has a handful of specific local missions, including paying regular visits to public schools in the District, helping to decrease homelessness and continuing his regular Friday "date night" with his wife, Michelle, by going out to Washington restaurants.
Yet despite his desire for a greater footprint on Washington than many of his predecessors, Obama stopped short of promising an aggressive pursuit of D.C. voting rights. In an interview yesterday, he described himself as a "strong proponent" of amending the District's lack of voting representation in Congress but did not portray it as a top priority for an administration that will already face a sinking economy and two wars.
"You've got a president who is supportive of it, and I think you've got a majority in both the House and Senate who'd be supportive of it," Obama said of giving Washington the right to vote. "But this takes on a partisan flavor, and, you know, right now I think our legislative agenda's chock-full. I would like to explore how quickly we can get it done."
D.C. leaders hope it happens within months and are eager for Obama to help. When Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) endorsed Obama in July 2007, he said Obama had pledged to support full representation for the city. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) has reintroduced a bill that would give the largely Democratic District a House seat and one additional seat for predominantly Republican Utah. That bill fell three votes short in the Senate in 2007, but Norton thinks it will be approved now that the Senate is majority Democratic.
Obama, who will be the first African American president in history and the first urban-inclined president in decades, brings a unique ambition to a role that is often walled off from the rest of the District. In a television interview last weekend, Obama said he hoped to integrate a city that is currently divided between the "company town" of political Washington and the most economically depressed sectors.
Obama went further yesterday during his 70-minute interview at The Washington Post, saying he and his wife had specifically discussed working with the D.C. public schools, using their own celebrity and success "as leverage to get kids and parents and teachers excited about the possibilities of an education." He said he was "trying to think about regular visits to local schools to meet with kids and meet with teachers and principals" and reiterated his desire to open up the White House "in ways that haven't been done before."
At a policy level, he said that he had met D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee but had not spent much time with her and that he expects his incoming Education Department secretary, Arne Duncan, to be "interested in how the school experiment here goes." Obama's two daughters are attending the private Sidwell Friends School.
When Fenty endorsed Obama, the then-candidate voiced strong support for changing the power dynamic between the District and the federal government, saying that "residents of Washington, D.C., shouldn't be treated like tenants, fortunate enough to share the same space as our government." As he did in Chicago, where he and his wife were active participants in city life, Obama has long said he wants to be a part of the District's fabric.
When asked about greater representation for the District -- which elects a nonvoting delegate to Congress -- Obama responded, at first, by talking about the personal gestures he and Michelle can make. And he said he has talked with Fenty in the past about "ways that my office can be engaged in homeless issues," although he did not specify how.
Last night, Obama celebrated his wife's birthday, which is Jan. 17, at Equinox restaurant in Northwest. Restaurant general manager and co-owner Ellen Kassoff-Gray said the arrival of the couple, with 11 others, was unexpected. About 10 p.m., the gathering, dining in a private room, sang "Happy Birthday."
Last weekend, Obama took his first step toward engaging the District on its own terms, going for lunch at Ben's Chili Bowl, a fixture on U Street, and traveling unannounced to the Marie Reed Recreation Center in Adams Morgan to play basketball. But it was the sightseeing trip to the Mall that he recalled in yesterday's interview, which coincided with his family's move from the Hay-Adams Hotel to Blair House, their last temporary stop before moving into the White House on Jan. 20.
Before the interview, Obama opened with remarks about his family's "field trip" to the Lincoln Memorial, an anecdote that, like so many of his, turned on his daughters' innocent clarity and insight.
"I love the memorial at night," Obama began. "It was all lit up. We first looked at the Gettysburg Address, and Michelle was explaining to Malia and Sasha what Lincoln meant -- the fact that given that all these soldiers had given up their lives, they'd consecrated this ground, that any words we would say would be empty and the only way we could honor them was actually to make this a more just and equal country.
"At which point, my 10-year-old, Malia, turns to me and says, 'Yeah, how are we doing on that?' " Obama said.
He said he then walked the girls over to the other side of the Lincoln Memorial, where the 16th president's celebrated Civil War-era second inaugural address is etched. Obama said his younger daughter, 7-year-old Sasha, asked whether he would be giving a similar speech.
"And I said, 'Well, actually, that's a short version, but yeah, I will,' " Obama recalled. "And then Malia says, 'First African American president -- it better be good.'
"So I just want you to know the pressures I'm under here from my children."
Staff writers David Nakamura and Elissa Silverman contributed to this report.